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University of Texas professor explores cultural phenomenon of doping

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Nov. 16, 2012
Sportive nationalism is one of the culture conditions driving doping culture, according to John Hoberman. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

University professor and author John Hoberman sees a need for culture-shift in cycling and is interested in bringing his unique perspective, decades in the making, to the table to help cycling move forward in the wake of the Armstrong Affair.

The chair of the Germanic Studies program at the University of Texas-Austin, Hoberman has dedicated nearly three decades of his life to studying doping in sport. Specifically, Hoberman has examined how performance- and image-enhancing drugs intersect with forces as large as international geopolitics and finance, and as mundane as our everyday human ambitions.

In his 1992 book “Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport,” Hoberman looked at how training and doping methods pushed athletes beyond their physiological limits. More recently, he penned 2005’s exhaustively researched “Testosterone Dreams: Rejuvenation, Aphrodesia, Doping,” which detailed how testosterone and hormone therapies grew to have uses beyond their initial clinical intent.

That book covers doping in cycling, including the 1998 Festina Affair, how the International Olympic Committee and UCI have treated doping as a public relations problem, and the public’s often conflicted response to drug-taking athletes. Hoberman teaches European cultural and political history, and has also written at length on the history of the Olympic Games and the creation of the World Anti Doping Agency from the wreckage of the 1998 Tour de France.

Hoberman, 68, told VeloNews that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s report on Lance Armstrong and the sport’s pervasive doping culture in the 1990s and 2000s blasts out an opening for progress.

“It’s the greatest opportunity you can imagine,” he said. “It’s a stunning opportunity to deconstruct a rotten system and with the support of corporations that really mean reform, to put something back together that will be a great improvement from the original.”

Speaking from his home in Austin, where he has taught at the University of Texas since 1979, Hoberman says he is not optimistic about the current UCI leadership.

“The UCI under McQuaid is no longer tenable,” he said.

In “Testosterone Dreams,” Hoberman details how governing institutions like the UCI are hamstrung by their leaders’ self interest. “Too many of these federations become autocratic fiefdoms where the president’s word is law,” he writes, adding that self preservation and self aggrandizement make institutions like the UCI and IOC naturally resistant to internal reform. “Restoring hope to young athletes who are demoralized by competing against steroid-assisted records has been less important than preserving intact the egos and reputations of sports officials who were accountable to no one but themselves.”

Hoberman recently attended a presentation in Austin where two of Lance Armstrong’s attorneys were panelists. He recalled raising his hand with a question.

“I stood up and one of the things I said to [Armstrong attorney] Tim Herman was, ‘you know, as soon as you made it clear that you were requesting UCI jurisdiction, you lost all your credibility with people who know what the hell is going on.’”

In 2005, SCA Promotions hired Hoberman as a consultant for the insurance company’s lawsuit against Armstrong. SCA claimed his doping invalidated the $5 million Tour de France performance bonus SCA had secured.

“They sent me do do a comprehensive history of doping in the Tour,” Hoberman said.

His 28 page report examined the top three finishers from 1961 to 1998. Over that 37-year period, Hoberman’s research led him to conclude that “far more than half” the riders on the podiums during those years had “either been confirmed or implicated in doping.” Looking back from the more-informed vantage of 2012, Hoberman is confident his conclusions about the Tour de France for SCA were correct.

“It was obvious it was a corrupted event,” he said.

Hoberman also recalls discovering an intriguing French report while researching in Denmark.

“I found a document that was called ‘L’Annuaire du Dopage,’ The Doping Annual,” he said.

The dossier of some 400-plus people listed athletes’ names, date of alleged infraction, and the substance involved. While the dossier later disappeared from where Hoberman found it, he had made a copy of it, which he still holds. Because the French report was not sourced, Hoberman says he viewed it with some skepticism, but it nonetheless underscored the overwhelming history of doping he discovered in his research into the Tour. In early 2005, Hoberman said, “some privacy group in France lobbied the government and they stripped the names out of this thing.”

Hoberman says he closed his 2005 SCA report by concluding that Armstrong was a categorical, systematic liar. Paraphrasing his report, Hoberman recalls writing that “he is surviving only because he is a cancer survivor and an icon.”

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Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

Writer-photographer Mark Johnson's work has been published in titles including VeloNews in the United States, Cycling Weekly in the UK, Vélo in France, and Ride Cycling Review in Australia as well as general-interest publications including The Wall Street Journal and the San Diego Union-Tribune. His book on the Garmin pro team, Argyle Armada, was published by VeloPress in 2012. A Cat. 2 road cyclist, Mark has bicycled across the United States twice and completed an Ironman triathlon. He graduated from UC San Diego and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University. His other passion is surfing, which he does frequently from his home in Del Mar, California. Follow him on Twitter @ironstringmark.

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